Helen O’Reilly won All-Ireland league medals with her native Ashbourne and St Mary’s before taking up refereeing in 2010. She was one of only two Northern Hemisphere refs at the 2014 Women’s World Cup and is now on the IRFU’s elite panel. In 2016 she was the first women to do touch judge in a PRO12 game, and in 2017 refereed a second tier men’s international.
There are three Irish referees in the 14 officials selected for the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup (August 9-26). Joy Neville and Sean Gallagher are amongst the nine referees and Helen O’Reilly is one of five assistant referees. They go into refs’ camp in UCD next Friday and remain there for the tournament.
Q: How did you get into refereeing?
A: I played rugby for 13 or 14 years and when I retired it was a choice of coaching or refereeing. My club Ashbourne has a very strong tradition of providing referees and once I did one or two games I was addicted to it.
A: Yes, I loved it right from the start! It’s the closest thing to playing without being sore the following morning, the best of both worlds. I enjoy the physical and mental demands, especially that thing of having to think on your feet. I love decision-making.
Q: Do you have to have been a player to referee?
A: For me yes. You have to have played in order to get the feel for the game and for what the players are trying to do. You can empathise with the players that little bit more.
Q: What’s empathy got to do with it? Surely rules are rules?
A: In rugby the distinction is that they are ‘laws’, not rules, and you can interpret a law. Sometimes a player can be offside but the game is never going that direction, so what’s the point in calling that?
Q: Rugby referees, uniquely, intervene and actually warn and stop players from breaking rules. Is that not a bit mad?
A: You have time to prevent something so why slow down the game and make a big decision like a penalty when you can shout into a player? I love that about rugby and that’s why it’s important to have been a player and really know the game. If I’m about to put my hands in and don’t know the ruck has formed yet, and a referee shouts ‘hands away!’, all of a sudden there’s mutual respect there.
Q: So it’s not just about safety and preventing injuries?
A: No it’s a continuity issue, it’s to speed up the game. Who wants to pay €80 for a ticket and there’s a stoppage every two minutes?
Q: Speaking of money, do referees get well paid?
A: We get match fees but it’s not enough to live off, though there are two full-time women’s referees — Amy Perrett in Australia and Sara Cox in England — on contract with their unions now. I have an equally popular job off the pitch — social welfare inspector in the Special Investigations unit. I don’t know which job I get more abuse in!
Q: What’s the career path for a referee in Irish rugby?
A: You initially have to start with underage games and assessments and get on to your provincial panel. To get on the IRFU’s national panel you have to referee and be assessed in all four provinces. I was invited onto it after doing the France/Canada semi-final at the 2014 Women’s World Cup. The IRFU have an A and B panel and I was promoted to the A panel at the end of the first season. I now referee more men’s games than women’s.
Q: How much training do you do?
A: I retired at 35, seven years ago and am actually fitter now than I was as a player, especially to keep up in the men’s game. I train five days a week, at 6am before work. I do weights and a lot of short sharp stuff on the pitch because you’re trying to replicate what happens in the game.
Q: Do you have to pass fitness tests?
A: Yes and they’re very stringent. Our IRFU referee’s conference is actually on this weekend and I’ve also just finished fitness tests with World Rugby (for international duty). You can only have a certain percentage of body fat. They measure us and you’d be told fairly swiftly if you put on an inch or two.
Q: Most bizarre thing that ever happened you?
A: Claire Hodnett (England) was reffing and I was on the line the night the floodlights went out in Ashbourne in 2015 (Ireland v France, Six Nations). That was a nightmare and very unfortunate because the club has done so much for Irish women’s rugby over the years. As soon as the lights went out I heard a player shout ‘hey referee I scored a try!’ We had a good chuckle at that one.
Q: What was the reaction when you refereed your first men’s game in 2015?
A: It was an AIL Division 2B game between Sundays Well and Kanturk. I was a bit nervous as it was all over the media beforehand but, afterwards, the captains of both teams presented me with a beautiful piece of crystal.
Out of all the medals and things I’ve ever got, that has pride of place on the sideboard, because it was from the lads themselves.
Q: Ever get any sexist comments doing men’s games?
A: Never from the lads on the pitch, they’re always grand and some of them are quite funny. I did a match in Dunboyne once and went into the dressing room to say ‘lads I’m here to check the studs’ and they were like ‘Sure we’re all studs here!’ They thought it hilarious! In another match the No. 8 was trying to wind up his opposite number and said: ‘Ref, he said you should be at home doing the dishes!’ You can go all politically correct but I thought that quite funny. You have to be able to laugh at these things.
Q: Is there anything at all you don’t like about refereeing?
A: You’d never scream at a player for knocking a ball on or call them ‘a disgrace’. You’d have a bit of empathy and know they’ll be feeling badly about it themselves. But when it comes to referees we can be ruthless sometimes and forget they’re human. If I make a mistake it will eat me up just as much as player who knocks on a ball for a try. I wish I could get that across to people — we are human beings, not robots.
Q: Finally, what’s this we hear about you skipping your honeymoon for the World Cup?
A: Yes, I did get married three weeks ago. We chose that date to suit us both because my partner Angela (Gallagher) is a school teacher. We got a very short honeymoon in Slovenia but we’re going to get away properly at Christmas. Angela is actually a GAA referee — so we’re both always right in an argument!
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